IF YOU WOULD be so kind, I’d like for you to do an experiment with me. Think about a famous work of art, a painting so widely considered Important and Valuable its status could never be questioned. Maybe you’re debating between “The Starry Night” or “Mona Lisa.” Maybe you’re considering something else entirely: Monet’s endless assortment of water lilies, for example. Good. Hold the image in your mind and recall, if you can, the work’s textures, its colors and its moods. Do you like the piece? Do you remember when you first encountered it?
Now, having answered those questions, imagine that someone has stolen it. This mysterious person explains that they are holding the painting hostage until works falsely attributed to the artist in question are exposed as fraudulent. They sign their manifesto with the words, “You will come to agree with me.” What would that do for the public imagination?
Blue Balliett explores this question in her 2004 novel, Chasing Vermeer, and though its main characters are sleuthy sixth graders, I find its basic premise has much to offer even to jaded adults (see: me). A Vermeer painting on its way to the Art Institute of Chicago—“A Lady Writing”—disappears mid-journey, and the thief posits a series of challenges to art historians and the broader world. Petra and Calder, two intrepid University of Chicago Laboratory School students, find themselves caught in the painting’s thrall and, through a series of dreams and coincidences, set out to find the “Lady.” But they’re not alone.